How Many Universities Are in the U.S. and Why That Number Is Changing

When it comes to determining how many universities are in the U.S., it’s a number in flux.

The short answer: There were 4,298 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S. as of the 2017-2018 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The long answer: It depends on how university branch campuses are counted, as numerous institutions have opened satellite locations. The number also is subject to change in a higher education landscape that has experienced numerous recent college closures and mergers.

Education is “like any industry in the sense that you’ve got activity with firms growing, opening, closing, changing, merging continually,” says Guilbert C. Hentschke, dean emeritus at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.

Though the U.S. Department of Education tallies more than 4,000 colleges and universities, U.S. News ranks only around 1,400 schools. To be eligible for inclusion in the Best Colleges rankings, a school must be regionally accredited and offer four-year undergraduate degree programs. Colleges that offer only associate degrees are not ranked, nor are schools with a student body of less than 200.

[Read: What’s the Difference Between College and University in the U.S.?]

Public vs. Private Colleges

Of the 4,298 institutions listed by NCES, there were 1,626 public colleges, 1,687 private nonprofit schools and 985 for-profit schools in fall 2017. The data divide the institutions into categories such as four-year colleges and universities and two-year schools, often known as community colleges.

Overall, the number of colleges in the U.S. is shrinking, particularly in the for-profit sector.

“Colleges are closing because they are struggling financially. Many for-profits closed because their enrollment fell off substantially in large part due to adverse publicity, challenges with their students getting financial aid and challenges that the (federal government) posed,” Lucie Lapovsky, principal at Florida-based Lapovsky Consulting and former president of Mercy College in New York, wrote in an email. She references stricter regulations on the for-profit sector as one contributing factor.

College Closures

While for-profit academic institutions have struggled in recent years with many closing, so too have small liberal arts colleges.

“Among the private colleges, those most susceptible to closing are the 800 private colleges with enrollment of (fewer) than 1,000 students. Schools that are small, schools that are almost entirely dependent on student revenues” Lapovsky says, adding that vulnerable institutions are threatened by the lack of other non-tuition funding streams flowing into those schools.

Hentschke notes that there are many factors in play when it comes to college closures.

“It’s a combination of size, market location, market recognition and a brand that can either keep you afloat or conspire against you,” Hentschke says. Despite market shifts, he notes the number of schools that close or merge is “relatively small in a given year.”

Demographics also play a role. The declining birthrate in the U.S. means colleges compete for fewer undergraduate students.

“You look across all institutions and that number is going down, not up,” Hentschke says.

Finding the Right College Fit

With more than 4,000 schools or additional branch campuses to choose from, students have an abundance of undergraduate degree options available, whether they are seeking an education at a research-oriented university, a small liberal arts college or a trade school.

[See: College Personality Quiz.]

That number can be overwhelming and “stress-inducing for students,” says Kelly Fraser, owner and principal consultant at Green Apple College Guidance & Education, which has offices in the Boston and Washington, D.C., areas. To help trim those options down, she advises students to develop criteria to determine what matters most and then find colleges that best align with those academic priorities.

“It really depends on what’s important to them,” Fraser says, noting that may be location, academic programs or other factors.

To get a feel for a college, Fraser advises prospective undergraduate students to visit and familiarize themselves with the campus and degree programs and “talk to professors while they’re on campus, talk to students and alumni. It’s really about being a good consumer.”

While students living in the U.S. may be able to take numerous college tours, that can be more difficult for international applicants. To bridge that divide, students overseas often turn to free resources, such as EducationUSA, a network of advising centers supported by the U.S. Department of State, or to paid consultants, such as Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of International College Counselors based in Florida.

“It’s just a very overwhelming process for a child in another country to know what to do,” Adler says.

[Read: How to Begin a U.S. College Search as an International Student.]

Often, she says, international students begin their college search by looking at college rankings.

“If it’s not on a rankings list, they don’t want to hear about it,” Adler says, adding that she shows students various ranking systems.

Another consideration is the undergraduate degree program that an international applicant is interested in. Adler works with students to identify which schools to apply to, encouraging them to consider other factors such as the international student population. She adds that “location is very important,” noting that the ability to easily fly to their home country is a priority for many international students.

Fraser says that undergraduate students entering a school typically want to be a member of the community and to network with other alumni when they join the workforce.

“It’s important for our families to invest in schools that they believe will thrive,” Fraser says, explaining that student connections to their alma mater often extend well beyond graduation.

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

More from U.S. News

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10 Colleges With the Most Undergraduates

A Guide to Different Types of College Degrees

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